Guest Host: Brendan Greeley

The U.S. combat mission in Iraq formally ends today, and the transition is stirring anxiety among many Iraqis. In the U.S., meanwhile, the response is much more muted. We’ll look back on the war and ponder how it will be remembered in the two countries.


  • George Packer Staff writer, The New Yorker Magazine; and author "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq" (Farrar Strauss Giroux)
  • Haider Hamza Iraqi journalist who has covered the war in his country for Reuters, ABC News and other news agencies


  • 13:06:42

    MR. BRENDAN GREELEYFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" connecting your community with the world. I'm Brendan Greeley sitting in for Kojo.

  • 13:07:00

    MR. BRENDAN GREELEYLater in the broadcast, why are we putting baseball players on trial for baseball sins? But first, a milestone in America. And the Obama administration actually uses the word milestone. Today, seven years after the war in Iraq began, U.S. combat operations formally come to an end. It's an inconvenient war in an election year. It doesn't make Democrats or Republicans look very good. But no empire leaves a country the way it was found.

  • 13:07:25

    MR. BRENDAN GREELEYToday is an anxious day for Iraqis. In recent weeks, many have been trying to leave their country for good. But two million of Iraq's most educated citizens are already gone. In the U.S., the response is more subdued, a milestone that could have been easily missed, if you weren't paying attention or if you don't have family in uniform. Joining us to talk about what happens when an empire leaves is George Packer. He's a staff writer at The New Yorker Magazine and the author of the excellent "Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq." He's on the phone in Massachusetts. George, welcome.

  • 13:07:57

    MR. GEORGE PACKERThanks for having me.

  • 13:08:00

    GREELEYWhen the war started, it was really good TV. There were night-vision goggles on cameras and there were things moving and columns rumbling through the desert. And what we're seeing now isn't as spectacular and it feels a little muted.

  • 13:08:16

    PACKERI agree. And that's actually been true for a long time now. The first three weeks of the war, which the Bush administration thought was the war, turned out just to be a prelude to what really mattered, which was years of insurgency, counter-insurgency, chaos, failed attempts at nation-building and then slightly more successful attempts, elections and unbelievable levels of violence, which to Americans doesn't look like a war. It doesn't. It's not the kind of war Americans like to fight or are used to fighting, which is why there was, pretty early on, fairly widespread disenchantment.

  • 13:09:01

    PACKERAnd now, we have unplugged from Iraq mentally, except for those of us who had family in uniform -- who are in uniform. For the most part, we stopped paying attention a long time ago. So this milestone, which is, you know, seven years of combat, seven years of war, it's an incredible period to see ending. And yet it doesn't feel like an ending, partly because of that lack of attention being paid in the U.S. and partly because it remains such a muddle, that it's very hard to define exactly what's ending and what new phase is beginning in Iraq.

  • 13:09:39

    GREELEYI want to talk about the word milestone. I'm just fascinated by the fact that it's such an anodyne word and that's the word that the administration chose to mark a date so solemn that there's going to be only the second Oval Office address of the administration. It's not a victory. What else could you describe it as?

  • 13:10:01

    PACKERI think it's a kind of euphemism for muddle. There is no victory. To speak of a victory, I think, would be just analytically wrong and would do a disservice to what we've seen over the last few years. Nor is it a defeat. We're not withdrawing the way we did from Lebanon in 1984 or Somalia in 1994. It is an end point in an ongoing story that certainly won't end for the Iraqis and really shouldn't end for us either.

  • 13:10:40

    PACKERWhat I don't like about the way the administration is describing this moment is it seems as if it's almost saying, now we can stop paying attention and turn to the other pressing issues, especially Afghanistan. And although Afghanistan is an enormously important war, Iraq is not going to go away. It's not going to remain status quo. Some things are going to change there and it will continue to matter to us a lot. So I hope I'm wrong, but I do worry that there's a kind of haste to declare this one over, if not won, and to move on.

  • 13:11:21

    GREELEYSo you see this, if I understand correctly, as a milestone for only the administration?

  • 13:11:26

    PACKERYeah, yeah. I think for Iraqis -- I have not been there in a couple of years. But from what I hear, Iraq is barely even aware that there is this solemn moment of the end of combat operations and the withdrawal of combat units. Life in Iraq has long since moved on from the period when the -- when American troops were patrolling the streets and were essentially the only force for security. And for Iraqis, you know, all the frustrations, the disappointments, the anger and the hopes and waning hopes continue and won't change because Americans are saying today is the day when our combat units went home.

  • 13:12:10

    GREELEYWe're picking up the phones at 1-800-433-8850. If this is not a milestone for Iraqis, perhaps it's a milestone for you. And we'd like to hear from you. Haider Hamza is an Iraqi journalist. He's covered the war for Reuters, ABC News and other news agencies from Iraq. He's now based in the U.S. He's on the phone from New York. Haider, welcome.

  • 13:12:33

    MR. HAIDER HAMZAThanks, Brendan.

  • 13:12:35

    GREELEYBaghdad is your home town. Can you give us a sense of how it's changed since the war began in 2003?

  • 13:12:44

    HAMZAWell, it has definitely changed dramatically. Unfortunately. most of it was not to the better of Baghdad. It was the city hit most with the violence and Baghdad was the city that most of its population ended up fleeing to neighboring countries and, you know, here to the United States, in my case, and other places. If you go to Baghdad now, you're going to see most people who are in Baghdad today are not from Baghdad. They're from other cities who have moved in.

  • 13:13:12

    HAMZAYou're going to see, you know, the headquarters of several political and religious parties that you never used to see before. You can see concrete walls all throughout at checkpoints, barbed wire, armed forces and headquarters of militias and such. It's -- Baghdad has been basically the stage of most of the action taking place since 2003 in Iraq and it has been the city that has been affected the most. And it's the city that houses 5 million Iraqis out of 25 million in the country.

  • 13:13:41

    GREELEYYou've described how the city itself has changed, how the architecture has changed. But how have Iraqis in Baghdad changed? What's different about their daily lives?

  • 13:13:51

    HAMZAEverything is damaged. I just actually came back four days ago from a tour in the Middle East and you can see how nothing is similar. I, myself, after, you know, living most of my life in Baghdad, went to school at Baghdad University and all that, at this point, I would feel a stranger in my own city if I move back. People -- you know, you walk around and you just look at people's faces and all you see is anger, frustration, poverty, depression. And it's a completely different mentality that people have.

  • 13:14:40

    HAMZAThere's a lot of anger. There's a lot of desire for revenge, unfortunately. And there's a lot of frustration. And at this point, people don't even know who to direct it to. Is it to the U.S. troops, the U.S. government? Is it to the Iraqi government? Is it to neighboring countries? Is it to militias and other armed groups? It's very vague that -- people don't even know who exactly their enemy is, at this point. They don't even know who is controlling their fate at this point and they don't even know if their voices are being heard. And that's the main fear that the U.S. has, yet again, chosen the wrong time to leave Iraq when it doesn't even have a space yet.

  • 13:15:12

    HAMZAThe government has not been formed nearly six months after the elections and they're just afraid that it's going to leave a very big vacuum behind. And everyone is apprehensive on who's going to fill up that vacuum.

  • 13:15:21

    GREELEYHaider, you described fear and anger on people's faces. And it reminded me of some of what -- George, you wrote about in your book, "The Assassins' Gate." You talked a little bit about Iraqi expats living in America who described Iraq in the time of Saddam before the war and described it as a republic of fear. Is there any way, between the two of you, that you can help us understand, from all the way over here, how fear now and anger is different from the fear and anger that existed under Saddam? George, do you maybe want to start?

  • 13:15:55

    PACKERI'll start, but I think Haider Hamza is in a position to speak more authoritatively about this. From what Iraqis told me after the fall of Saddam, during the Saddam years, everyone knew which direction the violence would come from. They knew who to be afraid of and there was absolute terror. I mean, Saddam presided over a reign of terror unlike any but a very small number of regimes in the 20th century. So we shouldn't for a moment forget what daily life was like under Saddam and how little hope there was for the future, how it seemed as if Iraq would -- Iraqis were just going to be stuck in prison for the rest of their lives.

  • 13:16:39

    PACKERBut now, Iraqis don't know where the violence is going to come from. They're afraid of everyone. They can't trust each other. They can't trust members of other sects or ethnic groups. They can't trust people who used to be their neighbors and friends. And they certainly can't trust their leaders and many of them don’t trust their own security forces. So there's a sense of fear moving from a very terrifying, but particular place that is the regime to fear, pervading all of society which created a kind of social breakdown which has incalculable consequences, including psychological ones.

  • 13:17:35

    PACKEROne thing that isn't often discussed, because it seems almost like a luxury, is what kind of mental health is going to exist in Iraq and what kind of help for people with psychological problems is going to exist. Because Iraqis have been through years of traumas the likes of which Americans can't imagine so that is, to me, that main psychological change from the Saddam years to the post invasion.

  • 13:17:47

    GREELEYHaider, do you want to pick that up?

  • 13:17:49

    HAMZASure. I actually couldn't agree more with George and what he just referred to. And, you know, I understood -- when I was born, Saddam was already the president of Iraq. And when I -- by the time I graduated from college, he was still the president of Iraq. So it was pretty much all we knew growing up. And you knew who he was and you knew that you should, you know, damn sure be afraid of him and not piss him off. So you knew that there was a red line that you shouldn't be crossing. You should not talk bad about him. You should not stand against his decisions. You should not criticize his policies.

  • 13:18:21

    HAMZAThe problem now is that Saddam is gone, but now you have 10,000 Saddams. Now, everyone is a Saddam. Every political party is a Saddam. Everyone with a gun now is a Saddam. So you don't even know who to please anymore. You don't know how to be safe. You don't know what to avoid exactly. It became -- it was very directed, targeted fear that we had and now it's very random. And, you know, it has left people with panic because you can be just walking down the street and a lost bullet ends up in your head. And it's -- you don't even know what measures to take anymore to protect yourself and your family.

  • 13:18:56

    GREELEYHaider Hamza, an Iraqi national who's reported on the war from Iraq, describes the difference between Iraq then and Iraq now is that now everybody is a Saddam. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Brendan Greeley from The Economist sitting in for Kojo, WAMU 88.5. We'll be back in a second.

  • 13:20:55

    GREELEYWelcome back. I'm Brennan Greely from The Economist sitting on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm talking with George Packer and Haider Hamza about new maps of America and Iraq, what has changed in the seven years of the war so far. The administration describes the end of combat operations as a milestone. We're picking up the phones at 1-800-433-8850. Let us know whether it's a milestone for you. Empires -- if we could just sort of casually describe America as one without going into too much detail about the definition. When they leave a country, they leave lots of things behind. They leave cultural stamps as well. Looking at Baghdad now, is there a way to read the traces of that in Baghdad? Are there -- is there more English being spoken? What is the cultural detritus that's been left behind as America thinks about departing. Haider?

  • 13:21:55

    HAMZAYes. Well, it's kind of hard to compare the U.S. involvement in Iraq to involvement of other empires like, you know, French or the British and Middle East and North Africa. Because first, is the time that they spend there is not that long and second, their presence in Iraq was pretty much limited to either military bases or combat operations and when they're out, they're not necessarily mixing with people and such. That being said, after 2003, after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that's when Iraq opened up to internet, cell phones, satellites. So it all came together.

  • 13:22:35

    HAMZASo you -- now, when I go back, when I even talk with people from Iraq, I realize there's, for example, a whole new set of terminology that I don't even know that came up after war that people picked up. You know, U.S. pop culture became very popular. The way people look, the way people dress, their haircuts, everything has pretty much changed. But again, it's not necessarily from the direct effect by the U.S. presence in Iraq as much as it's, you know, Iraq opening up to a larger global stage through the internet and digital media.

  • 13:23:08

    GREELEYDoes the existence of cell phones and the internet in Iraq give us some dim hope in the future for a civil society?

  • 13:23:16

    HAMZAI would like to believe so, yes. I mean, it's, you know, it's everything. Like, every technology, as we all know, can be used in both ways. Also, that has been a big part of fueling the violence in Iraq. You see a whole population of young, passionate Iraqi's who are unemployed, sitting at home and just are following the internet and the websites. And you can see they're using that as a tool to express their anger and its being used also as a tool to even recruit people into a different, armed, religious and political groups. So it's something that has been both good and bad for Iraq, but it has mostly targeted the young generation or my generation and -- which forms the majority the country at this point.

  • 13:24:01

    GREELEYWe've been talking, so far, about Baghdad and how Baghdad has changed, but, of course, the war has been happening all over the country. George, you've written a lot about how the maps of ethnic divisions within Iraq are slowly being redrawn and nudged back and forth. I'm wondering if you can give us a sense of how that map is different from what it looked like in 2003 when America entered Iraq.

  • 13:24:25

    PACKERI think the most important difference on the map is simply that Iraqi Kurdistan, which was already going an independent route, a separate way after 1991, after the Gulf War and the uprisings in the north and south is now -- it's a foreign country. You cross a border. You have to show identification at the airport. You know, you need to show I.D. if you fly into Arbil. And if you're an Arab Iraqi, you may well be turned away. So Kurdistan is not technically independent, but in every sort of practical way, it feels like a different country and that is the, I think, the sharpest change since 2003 in the map of Iraq. But the other big change is that the provinces are now beginning to develop in their own way because the central government, which was so all powerful under Saddam, has lost its grip.

  • 13:25:27

    PACKERAnd so southern Iraq provinces, like Basra, Diyala and Ninawa have far more powerful local governments which resent Baghdad and which want to keep more of their oil earnings and make more decisions for themselves. The same is true in the north in Maysan, of course, in Kirkuk, whose status hasn't been determined yet, but which is a huge existential question mark hanging over the next stage of Iraq. So essentially, Iraq has been decentralized and what used to be one of the most tightly controlled countries on earth, now has -- if there are 10,000 Saddams there are 19 Iraqs in each -- one in each province and that's a big change.

  • 13:26:21

    GREELEYHaider, do you have anything to add to that?

  • 13:26:24

    HAMZANo. I agree again. It's -- if you go outside Baghdad, especially the north and then southern parts, you're going to see that big change. And one more thing is you also -- if you go, especially to the south, you can see the very strong influence of neighboring Iran and Iraq today. I mean, the millions of Iranian pilgrims that go visit the holy sites and not just in Karbala, south of Baghdad. You go down there and you see even most people, at this point, in that part of the country, start to speak Farsi. They deal with the Iranian currency. They have banners in Farsi at their shops and advertisements. So you can see there's a very, very strong influence of Iran in Iraq today, which is what a lot of Iraqi's, at this point, fearing that this is, in fact, the strongest force in the region next to Iraq. And it might be the one that's going to step in and fill in for the vacuum of the U.S. once they leave.

  • 13:27:20

    PACKERBrennan, can I add something on?

  • 13:27:21


  • 13:27:22

    PACKERThe -- one of the saddest aspects of this milestone is how many Iraqis like Haider and like so many who I became friends with, young, educated, more secular-minded Iraqis with professional expertise, have left the country. And they left because they could and because they felt that there was no safe place for them inside the Iraq that evolved after the overthrow of Saddam. And until those Iraqi feel that there is a place for them, whether because of security or because Iraq seems like a country where their skills and their views are welcome, I don't see how Iraq is going to be able to develop a next generation that really has the skills and the outlook to make it a modern country.

  • 13:28:12

    PACKERI mean, in a sense, what Haider was saying earlier, was Iraq has not been Americanized by any means. This was an occupation that was cut off from the population, more than anything in the British or French experience, and that was the success of the insurgency, which forced the population to be separate from the American. But Iraq has opened up to world and yet those Iraqis who are best positioned to take advantage of that, don't live there anymore and that's a huge hole in the middle of Iraqi society. And we will all have to see, you know, at what point they feel they can go back or if they don't want to go back. But that is a failure, a huge failure of the American occupation that it did not make Iraq a safe place for those Iraqis.

  • 13:28:59

    GREELEYYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," WAMU 88.5. You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850. Bill, in northern Virginia. You're on the air.

  • 13:29:12

    BILLYes, good afternoon. I wanted to make a comment. I noticed that the first part of the program was devoted principally to the discussion of whether or not the use of the word milestone was an appropriate word to describe this moment in history -- the end of combat operations from U.S. I'd also like to take note of the fact that you used the word empire to describe America and America's involvement in Iraq and then blithely skipped over any definition of that. I would appreciate hearing what your definition of empire is in this context and also question why the listeners should not discern a certain, shall we say, political viewpoint in your coverage of this subject based on your choice of the word empire to describe America and America's involvement in Iraq. And I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 13:30:07

    GREELEYI think it's a fair point. Empire is a hard word to define when a country finds itself occupying another country. There are any number of different words that you can use to describe it. All of them are loaded. To describe America as a liberator is a loaded term, to describe America as an occupier is a loaded term. You find yourself, as a journalist, in a very hard place trying best to accurately describe what you see and what you hear without using loaded terms. But I think your point is a fair one. Empire is as loaded as all of the others. And perhaps I'll throw it to George Packer to say, is that a fair word to apply?

  • 13:30:54

    PACKERYou know, I'm reminded of a meeting I sat in on between some young American officers and a handful of Iraqi sheiks -- not senior sheiks, junior sheiks in the neighborhood of Kadamia (sp?) in northern Baghdad. This was back in 2003. And the Iraqi were saying, why don't you control the roads? Why don't you arrest people? Why don't you impose order? Why don't you put a dictator in charge? And the American officers were saying, we're not an empire. We're not here to run your affairs. We want to leave and leave it to you. We're just going to stay as long as we have to. And the Iraqi said, oh, no, you are in charge. The British knew how to be in charge. The problem with you is you're in charge without knowing how to be in charge.

  • 13:31:40

    PACKERThere was this incredible split between Iraqi point of view, which was you are the occupying army in the streets of our city. We didn't invite you here, but you're the only force for order, so do it and do it well. And the American point of view, the soldiers' point of view, which was, we have freed you and that's all we really came here to do. And anything else is sort of the aftermath and we really don't want to be here. We want to go home. We want to leave the job to you. That's not what an empire does. So it kind of depends on who you ask. I also remember an Iraqi friend being asked by the Fulbright committee in Baghdad, when he was interviewing for a Fulbright fellowship, is this a liberation or an occupation? And that was kind of the key question. I think the answer he gave was, both.

  • 13:32:22

    GREELEYHaider, do you see this as a liberation or an occupation or are both of those words inadequate?

  • 13:32:27

    HAMZAI would say that it's both. One of the things that I noticed the most after I moved to the U.S. from Iraq, was the difference of the focus of people in both countries. I'm in Iraq and I see most people's concern is about who's in charge. Who's taking security? Who's the one that has the guns? You know, who's going to restore electricity and running water to us? And I come to the U.S. and the discussion is, you know, is that an invasion or an occupation or a liberation? Is that a milestone or is it mission accomplished or is it -- you know? And it's a complete different level of discussion and argument that you see and people are -- concerns are entirely different. And in Iraq -- for Iraqis and, you know, and -- for a regular, every day Iraqi, when he sees someone outside his door with an M-16 and -- you know, and a fancy military vehicle and -- for him, that's the one who's in charge.

  • 13:33:18

    HAMZAFor him, that's the one who's now filling in for Saddam, which is -- you know, again, my generation, that's all we know in our lives. That's the only that we lived under as a person in charge. And when he was gone, he was replaced by U.S. troops. And for us, then that's the one that took over. That should be the one in charge. That's the one responsible now. Now, you know, it depends on who you ask in Iraq and from what city in Iraq you can ask. It's going to give you a different answer on whether it's an invasion or liberation. But for me personally, again I'm only speaking for myself, not even for my family, is that I would say it's an invasion.

  • 13:33:59

    GREELEYI'm chewing on the word empire now and I think the caller's question is an important one. I wonder, George, whether America didn't leave Iraq with less of a sense of power than it entered. Do you -- how would you describe our sense of omnipotence in the world after this?

  • 13:34:27

    PACKEROh, that's -- beyond question, we are much diminished, in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Remember what the United States' position was in 2003. We felt that we could go to war by ourselves, that we could overthrow any regime around the world that we regarded as a hostile to us. We did it in Afghanistan. We did it in Iraq. There were some people, including those in the administration, who wanted to move onto Syria or Iran. It was a feeling of omnipotence. It was a uni-polar world in which we felt we would -- we could go to war, with the help of others or without it, either way.

  • 13:35:13

    PACKERAnd since then, we've been bogged down in a kind of a war that we did not know how to fight, where the enemy was an 18-year-old with an AK-47 or a homemade roadside bomb and we had been bled and bled and bled. And although our military has shown -- of all the national institutions, has shown amazing persistence and patience and ability to learn, I think for the public at large, this has been a tremendously humbling period. Iraq made Americans want to pull away from the world to stop meddling in other people's affairs, to cultivate our own garden, to nation build at home, as some people have said, and to stop relying on the military to carry out our foreign policy. So it's been just a dramatic change and decline in our own perception of our power and in the world's perception, as well as in how the world feels about us, which, since the invasion of Iraq, has been not too good.

  • 13:36:18

    GREELEYGeorge, I hope I characterize this correctly. But when the war began, you were a supporter of it. Much of your criticism since the war started has focused on the execution, on basic questions of competence and it makes me wonder...

  • 13:36:40

    PACKERShould we have done it at all?

  • 13:36:42

    GREELEYNo, you know what? We spent seven years asking that question and I don't want to spend the next three minutes trying to answer it, which is all we've got. I'm more interested in the idea that Americans genuinely do believe we're going good in the world. I was working in Europe when the war started and I found that the hardest thing to do was to explain to the people around me that America genuinely believed that it was doing good in the world with the Iraq War. That it was not a cynical grab for oil, but, in fact, we thought that we could make the world a better place. The quiet American that Graham Green described after the Vietnam War, it felt very much alive in 2003. Do you think we still possess that, George?

  • 13:37:23

    PACKERI think it's pretty much coded into our DNA that when we do go overseas, when we do meddle, we always do it in the name of some higher, more noble goal than just national self-interest or even lower than that, you know, some craven resource grab. And I think, in many ways, that does explain why we had stuck it out. After all, seven years is a long, long time -- why we'd stuck it out so long in Iraq. Of course, we had our own interests, but I think Americans felt some responsibility to Iraq after breaking it, in the words of Colin Powell.

  • 13:37:59

    PACKERWe absolutely shattered it and were totally unprepared for what followed and it's been a very long, slow, ugly learning curve for us. But I think this goes back to the caller who didn't like the word empire. Americans don't think of themselves as imperialists. We don't go overseas in order to own other people's countries. We -- in our own view, we go overseas in order to make the world right. And it's, I think, going to be a long time before we or Iraqis will be able to say that we made Iraq better. Right now, to most Iraqis, I don't think it feels that way. And we don't know how that will be in 10 years or 20 years. I think the most we can say is we made it possible for Iraq to be better by removing the obstacle to that. But that's a very small achievement compared to the rather vainglorious pronouncements with which we went into Iraq seven years ago.

  • 13:38:53

    HAMZAHaider, is it all possible in the next minute to characterize how Iraqis feel about America or Americans at this milestone? 'Cause sadly, that's all we've got.

  • 13:39:03

    HAMZASure. Well, again, it's all going to depend on who you ask. And one thing that frustrates me the most, as an Iraqi, is to see something on television, especially when I was in Iraq, sitting in the U.S. talking on behalf of Iraqis. So I don't want to do that now. But, you know, it's a mixed feeling and Iraq -- Iraqis are largely grateful that Saddam has been toppled and the U.S. takes the credit for that. But the price of the Iraq state is too high and I think it's very hard for me or anyone to sit back and say anything in the world is worth the life of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American lives as well. I don't think anyone has that right. I think it's hard to -- it's a hard pill to swallow. But I think the bottom line is that the truth -- that America cannot stay in Iraq forever. They cannot afford to stay. It's not feasible for them to stay forever. They're going to have to withdraw sooner or later. It is going to get a lot worse once they withdraw before it gets any better.

  • 13:40:41

    GREELEYHaider, that's all the time we have. George Packer, Haider Hamza, thank you both very much. This is WAMU 88.5, we'll be back.

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